oisin thomas
Oisín Thomas

Does Language Learning have to be like Tiktok?

5 min read

Everyone is fighting for your primary resource nowadays, and supposedly that resource is in decline: your attention. Have we gotten to the point where to learn a new language, we have to have Subway Surfer playing in the bottom of our view? I hope not.

This attention-mining rush does have language learning companies thinking: if we can't beat them, we have to join them for the sake of the good fight of education. In a recent Ted Talk, the CEO of Duolingo, Luis von Ahn acknowledged that a major challenge they faced was making educational content engaging on smartphones, which are filled with highly addictive apps like TikTok and Instagram. To tackle this, Duolingo employ similar psychological techniques used by these platforms, such as streaks and notifications, to keep users engaged in learning. Despite some criticism, these methods have proven effective, with millions of users maintaining long-term engagement with the app.

Luis believes that while educational apps might not match the engagement levels of entertainment apps, the meaningfulness of learning provides additional motivation—not to forget, language learners show true-grit to grind out a level so as to avoid the glare and gasps of the passive-aggressive green owl. And that is the way the world is set up to be: too stimulating to be anything other than sludge content or a mix of carrot-and-stick psychology.

We do have willpower, though, as Luis alluded to. For the more white-knuckled language-learners, Anki is still the go-to for learning new words and drilling using spaced-repetition systems, with their many decades of research and memorization methods dating back to Cicero. Yet, if the task is somewhat onerous to do in the digital age, a for-profit company needs to incentive it with streaks and sound-bites just to compete.

But there is a method where the learning isn't onerous. With this method one can get their carrot and eat it—without the stick—or without turning your brain to sludge watching sludge content or grinding; but, in the words of an education research paper by Pitts, White and Krashen in 1989, when even back then "few programs were explicitly built" to make use of the method. This method is called the Diglot Weave Method . From 50 years of researching the method, they have concluded: even when you have very little interest in the text, if you have a small number of foreign words in a text, you can incidentally pick them up faster than any other method. And, it gets better: when you are reading content that you actually enjoy and it uses this method to put foreign language words in the text, it can be 100% more effective than the next best method! Simple, with no tricks apart from reading what you want.

There are two major reasons we haven't seen it go mainstream to-date. Firstly, up until very recently, education has come from institutions by and large. Only recently, with the likes of Duolingo, Khan Academy, Coursera and others, has education been wrested from the institution and put in the hands of the individual. Systems move slowly, but individuals can grow and adapt quickly, and when we see better options available to us, we take them without committee.

Secondly, the technology hasn't been there to cope with the infinity of text and the complexity of language. It wasn't very long ago, that large-scale on-demand machine translation was just a musing on paper. But, that is changing with the latest advances in artificial intelligence and improvements in technology on the web. Advances like ChatGPT are bringing a level of personalisation to learning that we never had before outside of private tutors.

These changes have allowed us at Weeve to do what we do: to bring ease to language learning on the go, to weeve your world instead of sucking your attention into ours.

The Diglot Weave method is a holistic approach for body and mind in a time of attention-warfare. You don't need the über-stimulation to learn. You can save your attention and learn faster simply by reading what you like with Weeve.


I'd like to thank John Moran for recommending to me the paper, Acquiring Second Language Vocabulary through Reading, that inspired this article.

Reading List

  1. Your Mystery: Have Attention Spans Been Declining? – SLIME MOLD TIME MOLD
  2. The big idea: are our short attention spans really getting shorter? | Society books | The Guardian
  3. Tyler Cowen's three laws - Marginal REVOLUTION
  4. What is the Diglot Weave Method?
  5. Sludge content is consuming TikTok. Why aren't we talking about it? | CBC News
  6. How to Make Learning as Addictive as Social Media | Luis Von Ahn | TED
  7. Acquiring Second Language Vocabulary through Reading